The Inside Look at Indiespensable

Indiespensable, Powell’s subscription club, started out as a conversation between employees once they realized there was a demand for unusual special edition books from their customers. “People really wanted to collect books that they thought were special and they wanted a curated approach, but we also knew that there were book clubs out there. We wanted to do something that felt like it uniquely translated our passion for books and reading,” Emily Powell states.

The Powell’s Books team decided they would support new writers and independent publishers and include a signature Powell’s flavor of a small gift with every edition shipped to their subscribers. The first shipment sent out its first volume to 150 subscribers in March of 2008—now that number has grown to 1,650.

Emily and her co-workers pride themselves on providing books to their subscribers that introduce them to new authors and publishers. “Most of our books are relatively new so if they are out they haven’t hit a bestseller list and many folks haven’t even heard them yet. It is really a process of our team looking at what is coming up, talking to our new book buyers, talking to publishers and receiving recommendations from around the industry.”

To check out what book Powell’s is offering for their next volume of Indiespensable (priced at $39.95 with new volumes shipped each six weeks) visit the club’s webpage at:


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Buying Books for Generations of Readers

“You keep your net in the water,” Emily Powell, owner and president of Powell’s Books, repeats her father’s favorite saying that they both apply to their approach to business. “You are always scanning for new ideas and different ways of doing things and experimenting essentially,” she continues.

Michael Powell, former owner of Powell’s Books, took away this motto from his experience as a commercial fisherman on the Columbia River. In 1979, eight years after the company’s founding, Michael Powell decided to join his father and founder of Powell’s Books, Walter Powell, in Portland.

The placement of new and used books side-by-side on the shelves started off as an experiment for Walter Powell and soon became a signature of all Powell’s Books locations. “My grandfather watched customers walk out the door because we only sold used books and walk to a new bookstore to buy something new. It didn’t make sense to him how that was a positive experience for the customer,” Emily states.

Now Powell’s Books has 500 employees and consists of five stores, including their flagship location that is home to over one million books, and three sites at the Portland International Airport (even used books are sold at the airport locations). In their flagship location alone, 3,000 books are bought a day.

It is no wonder that Emily Powell describes their book-buying process as both an art and a science. “We have a database that we have had over many years of our inventory, not just of today’s inventory but the inventory of the last decade. It allows us to look at sale’s trends and histories. So when someone comes up with a stack of five books we look up each of those books and say: Do we have this in stock now? Do we have used copies? Do we have enough with that particular sales philosophy of that book?”

“It is really about querying our database and looking and interpreting the history of that book in our business,” Emily continues. While buying new books relies on communicating with publishers, publisher’s reps and understanding the trends in the new book world to buy larger quantities of inventory, the used book-buying process is usually one book at a time.

“Occasionally we buy in large quantity. We do what we call large buys and then we might buy 100 to 5,000 books at a time that is a bit more about sampling the inventory getting an understanding for what the seller has and making an estimate if that is a good purchase for us,” Emily states.

Last August, Powell’s made their way to Archer City, Texas to purchase books from the over 300,000 books being sold from Pulitzer Prize-winning Larry McMurty’s bookselling business, Booked Up. Two years earlier, in March 2010, Powell’s bought 7,000 books from author Anne Rice’s personal collection some of which were even signed or annotated by her.

The constant traffic of new and used books in and out of Powell’s Books goes beyond their eight store locations. “One of the little known facts is that Amazon Marketplace was originally constructed in part for our inventory,” Emily explains. While the store’s sales on Marketplace constitute a substantial part of their online business it is not the majority. “We had such a large inventory of books that we wanted to sell through Amazon and Amazon wanted us to sell through them. Amazon’s original platform couldn’t accommodate for the number of skews that we had.”

Their inventory even spans beyond the titles Powell’s has on their shelves with customers printing titles out of copyright and ones on-demand at the Espresso Book Machine located at their flagship location. “A substantial portion of the books are self-published whether that’s because someone wrote a novel, a book of poems or is publishing a book of family recipes,” Emily states.

Powell’s Books gives the self-published authors the encouragement they need with text written on the stairs leading to the Espresso Book Machine that reads,“What do Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Beatrix Potter, and D.H. Lawrence have in common? They’ve all self-published. Are you next?”

“The Espresso Book Machine adds to the experience and that people can really connect to what it means to write and to publish in a very vivid and visceral way. It reminds people of what it takes and that at some point everyone has to make that leap. People are finding old books from their family, maybe a memoir that a grandmother wrote, and being able to bring that in, print it and share it with their relatives,” Emily tells me.

Whether customers have aspirations to be a published writer or a more curious reader, Powell’s Books makes sure they provide their customers the tools to make this happen. “My role is about making sure the course we are setting today and in the next five to ten years is the right course to see us through the next generation of readers,” Emily says.

We don’t doubt that Powell’s Books will continue to show the coming generations not only what reading can offer them but what they can provide to a community of other readers.

To keep up-to-date on Powell’s Books, check out their website:


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Nicolette Amstutz is a writer for Independent Publisher. She is currently studying English and Communications at the University of Michigan. Please contact her with any comments, questions, or criticisms at namstutz (at)